Rita Dove, former Poet Laureate of the United States, drew laughter
as she read poems from her new book, "American Smooth."
The poems were inspired by her new adventures in
Photo By Holly Marcus
Circle Brings Together
Black Arts Movement Elders
Old friends reunited with hearty hugs and huge smiles. Blacks in African garb -- bright-colored flowing skirts, printed tunics, hand-made pill box hats, with dreadlocked, braided and straightened hair -- mingled with other students, faculty and visiting scholars in anticipation of the big event.
It was an appropriate setting to pay homage and listen to the elders of the black arts movement.
The Laureate's Circle event of the Furious Flower Poetry Conference drew hundreds to Wilson Hall to listen to readings of ground-breaking black poets. The gathering featured poets Amiri Baraka, Rita Dove, Dolores Kendrick, Eugene Redmond, Sonia Sanchez and Askie Toure.
In introduction, Joanne Gabbin dedicated the conference to the memory of Margret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Raymond Patterson "and more," and to the legacy of two living poets, Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez.
While Baraka and Sanchez drew roaring responses from the audience with their insightful political commentaries, other laureate poets took a more understated approach.
Perhaps the most hushed response was evoked by Dolores Kendrick's reading of "Hattie on the Block," written in the voice of a slave woman on an 1800s auction block. Hattie's young daughter, Carrie, is with her on the block. In the poem, Hattie speaks alternately to Carrie and her bidders. Kendrick used a gentle, pleading voice as Hattie speaking to her child, and a bold, authoritative voice when speaking to her potential buyers.
Kendrick-as-Hattie said softly, "Still, Carrie, be still child. Don't cry,/ don't let them see you cry, honey,/ there's a victory in that. Keep the tears/ inward, outta they sight."
But Hattie tells the well-heeled bidders, "Souls cain't be bought./ I won't be of much use to anybody/ who buys me without my Carrie here./ … will I have to work with my mind/ catchin' butterflies, when I should be/ pickin' cotton, 'cause my soul be amputated/ when you bought me without my Carrie/ for a few dollars cheaper?"
To the relief of Kendrick's audience, the poem ends with Hattie getting her way, and the mother and daughter are sold as a pair. But a few tears were shed as Kendrick read Hattie's last line to her daughter, "We be sold, but we ain't bought."
Rita Dove, former poet laureate of the United States and Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, read from her new collection, "American Smooth." She explained first that she and her husband took up ballroom dancing when their house burnt down, "dancing on the ashes," she said.
From "Fox Trot Fridays," Dove read, "Thank the stars there's a day/ each week to tuck in/ the grief, lift your pearls, and/ stride, brush, stride/ …one man and/ one woman,/ rib to rib,/ with no heartbreak in sight."
Yet even her experience in ballroom dancing is that of an African-American woman entering a world in which she is distinguished by the color of her skin, as expressed in the poem, "Brown."
At many ballroom dance events, a "dress woman" shows up to sell beautiful dresses to the women there. Dove read, "Why, you look good in every color!/ the dress lady gurgled, just before/ I stepped onto the parquet/ for a waltz."
In the poem, Dove finds that, for once, she's not the only black person in the room. Tonight, there are "two others, both male."
"Don't/ get me wrong: I've always loved/ my skin, the way it glows against/ citron and fuchsia, the difficult hues,/ but the difference I cause/ whenever I walk into a polite space/ is why I prefer grand entrances--/ especially with a Waltz…/ The dress in question was red."
Dove's ironic humor, characteristic of some of her other poems, too, gave the audience a good laugh.
Contact Luanne Austin at 574-6292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.